Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?

This is a bit of a break from the usual whimiscal and light hearted posts that I seem to have been obsessed with lately, but Peace Magazine recently published an article that my mentor Barry Wellman, my colleague Xiaolin Zhuo, and I wrote about the revolts that rocked Egypt early this year and the role that information and communication technologies played. With no arrogance intended, I think it's an important read that takes a sobering look into the recent debate of social media's organizing capacity.

T-shirts for sale in Cairo commemorating the January 25, 2011 revolution. Photo by Zeynep Tufekci. Used by permission

“What brought Hosni Mubarak down was not Facebook and it was not Twitter. It was a million people in the streets, ready to die for what they believed in,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently proclaimed.

Friedman appears to have had an either/or dichotomy in mind when assessing the Egyptian revolt that started in January 2011. That’s an oversimplification, ignoring not only the lack of opposition from the elites, military, and US government, but also the role of social media and the organized groups and informal networks that brought people to the streets. It’s clear that social media such as Facebook played important roles in transforming organized groups and informal networks, establishing external linkages, developing a sense of modernity and community, and drawing global attention. Their impact suggests that those concerned with the quest for democracy and peace should pay more attention to the explicit and implicit effects of these social media. Read the full article here.

In Egypt, Applaud the People...Not Facebook or Twitter.

I've been glued to my laptop and television for the past few days just watching the events unfold in Egypt, devouring all the photos, articles, videos, and tweets that come my way. It's absolutely riveting to witness the bravery and spirit of the Egyptian people as they take to the streets to fight for their rights. And I'm so deeply moved to know that a people can come together, irrespective of class, age, and religion, to push for change that is so desperately needed.

Why yes, those are people praying. (Scott Nelson, NYTimes).

It's funny though because as I listen to the news and hang out on Twitter, one of the most prevalent themes about the recent uprisings in the Middle East is the role of social media in mobilizing the people. Pundits left, right, and centre have been quick to assess the role of Twitter and Facebook in igniting these revolutions. And overly enthusiastic social media evangelists are in a frenzy to call the uprisings a "Twitter revolution". I think it's rather silly though to frame the situation in this way, completely disregarding the political, social, and economic issues that are essentially at the crux of this revolution. And I think it's sheer naiveté to believe that Facebook and Twitter are the only means by which people on the ground are organizing, as if their only point of contact were in cyberspace and not physical space. The buzz surrounding social media has truly been overwhelming and as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his infamous New Yorker article, "where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools". 

Of course this is not to say that the role of social media should go unnoticed or downplayed. I do believe that it has played a critical role in the developments in the region, not only by helping to organize internally within the country, but also by getting information out into the world with such ferocious speed, energy, and urgency. Jared Cohen of Google Ideas captured my sentiments best when he described social media as "an accelerant". These tools have undoubtedly changed the media landscape and the implications are significant. After all, the mere fact that the government of Egypt felt it necessary to shut down the Internet and mobile communications is testament enough to its importance. There's no dispute there.

But let's not let the allure of these new technologies overshadow the bravery of the people. Yes, digital media and communication technologies have made it profoundly easier for ordinary citizens to mobilize, organize, and coordinate their efforts and that's certainly nothing to scoff at. But at the end of the day, it is the people who are the driving force of this (and any) revolution. And Facebook, Twitter, cellphones, telephones, fax machines, telegrams, or whatever the current technology of the day is, are only tools that people have at their disposal to use. In the end, it is still the people who must take to the streets and risk their lives for a better future. And as we grapple to understand these new technologies, I hope we don't lose sight of this very basic truth.

(Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press)

Twestival Toronto

It’s a Twesti-whaaaat? It’s a Twestival! …A global fundraising event that is bringing together the online Twitter community from hundreds of cities around the world to support  and celebrate a good cause. And yes, it’s coming to Toronto! This Thursday, March 25th at Tryst Nightclub, join hundreds of Torontonians as they rally behind Concern Worldwide, raising funds for an international humanitarian organization dedicated to reducing suffering and ending extreme poverty. Organized 100% by volunteers, the team behind Twestival Toronto ensures that 100% of all tickets and sponsorships go directly to Concern Worldwide.

Now I know the question that’s hanging on all of your minds… “I don’t have Twitter, can I still go?”. Of course you can! You don’t need to be on any social networking site to go out and support a cause that you believe in! So this Thursday, take a break to kick back and meet some cool new peeps all while supporting a more than worthy cause!

When: Thu, March 25, 2010 1:00 AM – 1:00 AM
Where: Tryst Nightclub
More Info/Ticket Purchase:

#Tweet4Rights: An Evening of Rights Media


So it's the hot topic that everyone seems to be talking about these days: social media. It is completely transforming, if not fundamentally challenging the media landscape of today and it only makes sense for Journalists for Human Rights to be active participants in this ongoing dialogue. It seems that more and more, ordinary citizens all around the world are using social media tools like blogs, YouTube, and Twitter to reach out to a global audience to report on and expose the rampant human rights violations that are occurring every single day. There are tons of examples that have recently been capturing the headlines. Just think Iran, think China.

But it is all too easy for us to be swept away by this new frontier, overly confident of what it is capable of. This is not to say, of course, that we should not embrace its potential benefits or the wide range of possibilities that it has to offer. The complete opposite actually. But we must proceed with caution and with a conscious mind. As panelists Andrew Coyne and Shirley Brady of last week's "Traditional Media Meets Social Media" session at Toronto's Social Media Week agreed, the rush to be the first to break a story on Twitter (or any other social media site for that matter) is often at the expense of accuracy, context, and relevance. That's why we at Journalists for Human Rights are hosting #tweet4rights - A Night of Rights Media on February 26 from 6-10PM, where we are hoping to educate and inform our online followers of how to effectively and, more importantly, responsibly tweet, blog, or whatever the case may be, about issues dealing with human rights in a way that will encourage an ongoing dialogue.

We're at the cusp of something really great and there's nothing more we would love than for you to join us on this journey. For more information and to register for the event, click here -